The empathic design of Paola Navone

Architect, designer, art director, decorator, essayist, teacher, curator of exhibitions and events: Paola Navone tells herself to IFDM with a hint of nostalgia

Paola Navone - Photo © Giovanni Gastel
Paola Navone - Photo © Giovanni Gastel

PAOLA NAVONE IS A DESIGNER THAT MARCHES TO HER OWN DRUM: DIGITAL ONLY WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, YET ANALOGUE IN HER WAY OF EXPERIENCING AND VIEWING THE PROFESSION. A GIRL NEXT DOOR WHO ALLOWS HER STAFF AND HER CLIENTS TO ENJOY A ROCK-N-ROLL LIFESTYLE, SHE IS THE ANTITHESIS OF EXACTING DESIGN, ALWAYS MAKING SURE THAT THERE IS AN ELEMENT OF FUN. ALL THE REST IS BORING.

Rafael daybed for Ethimo

You were a part of the Alchemy group, perhaps the most progressive studio that the world of design has ever seen. Is there still room to be progressive? Has the meaning of this word changed?
I was incredibly lucky to begin my career at a time of great energy, when there was an enormous amount of true exchange. Today everything is different. The economic situation probably affects people as well, creating uncertainties that they may even be unaware of. There’s little sense of adventure.
My studio is full of 25 to 35 year-olds who sometimes look at me as though I’m from another planet. They’re wiser. When I was their age I was thinking about freedom and doing what I liked.

When I worked with Sottsass & Co we were forced to come up with ways to get by. We worked a lot, but very little of our time was dedicated to what actually paid us. The rest was for our own inventions, for the things that we liked and that we basically paid for with the (little) money that we earned during our paid hours. All of this was made possible because of Alessandro Guerriero (the founder of Alchemy), a genius who set off a true explosion of creativity and who then knew how to keep it together and guide it. We presented our self-made collections at the Salone del Mobile with the help of Guerriero and of several companies that gave us the materials.

Even now I continue to encourage joy in design. I often tell those who work with me that we must always be sure to incorporate a small percentage of fun in everything that we do. If you enjoy yourself, then the output of your work will reflect that energy; if you suffer while you design, then the result of your work will carry that negativity and those who look at it will somehow perceive it. We also need to dispel with the myth that designers are somehow of a higher caste. We work like everyone else, but we have the great fortune of being able to develop our creativity, of being able to bring together craftsmanship and business, basically of being able to attract other energies and use these to fuel our design.

Cerise Rooftop bar – Virgin Hotel, Chicago – Photo © Nicholas James, courtesy by Virgin Hotel

It seems that the digital world holds little appeal for you. If so, why is that?
The world evolves. The digital medium is a tool that helps me to do my job better and with less strain. Period. I don’t understand how someone – from stranger to stranger – can be attracted to one of my products by seeing it on Instagram. Today’s digital communication is the epitome of superficiality. I think that there are still ways for us to avoid fuelling the superficial and to seek instead to move a bit beyond appearances.

You’re an avid traveller. What is it that you’re looking for exactly?
Travel is one of my elements. I don’t run from anything and I don’t chase anything. I simply need to see and touch, experience places and meet people. I find it to be an excellent and practical way to scout ideas, the only one that I know of. It doesn’t matter how far you go. For me, even going to the supermarket is a journey: I leave, I go, I see, I assimilate, and I create my things, objects, and situations. In this way our studio has transformed into an enormous melting pot in which you can find everything. And when a new job arrives – it doesn’t matter if it’s a chair or a hotel – the right things bubble to the surface. We don’t dedicate much time to the synthesis. Decisions are made very quickly because the rest of the time (the journey) is pure analysis, which now comes naturally to us.

Joyce Boutique, Hong Kong – Photo © Lusher Photography

Taipei sofa for Baxter

Moon table, Gray and Ghost chairs, Brass lamps for Gervasoni

The world of design seems to be very attracted to large-scale contracts, but you less so. Is that accurate?
I absolutely love designing hotels! My office works like this: it’s divided into two groups, one designs the products and the other designs the arrangements and interiors. It all begins with the first meeting with the client. If there’s mental chemistry then I assume the responsibility of fitting in with what his world expects from him. Every interior that we design is like a film built upon the client’s reality and is the result of the fusion between my two working groups: the rigorous and disciplined one that designs objects, and the other one that’s free from limitations and that creates the interiors. Exchange and reciprocal assistance are continuous. One delivers discipline and the other transforms it into a vision.

An imaginary city @ Triennale di Milano for Abet Laminati Fuorisalone 2017 – Photo © A. Arcidiacono

Designer products seem more and more to be copies of something we’ve already seen. What do you think about this?
These days marketing has gotten the upper hand on creativity and the result can be seen in products which are almost always a repetition of something else that (maybe) worked. The fear of changing direction paralyses strategies. When I worked with Mendini and Sottsass we tried to insinuate innovative ideas into the minds of company executives: colour (at the time everything was black leather and polished steel), asymmetry (everything was symmetrical), playfulness (in the 1960s the grey concept in which “design must teach” was very popular… no comment). Do you understand the difference?